One of the most spectacular festivals in Thailand, Bung Ban Fai, or rocket festival, is more than just a giant fireworks display. This ancient tradition marks what Thai people hope will be the start of the rains which are so crucial to their rice harvest.
There are several myths as to why these phallic-shaped bamboo tubes, filled with gunpowder and charcoal and decorated with a serpent creature called Nagas, are fired into the sky. One is that only when the gods are in love will the rains arrive. In order to encourage romantic antics, parties take place across Thailand and these giant rockets – some of which are over 9m high and contain more than 100kg of gunpowder – are projected into the sky.
Held from late April to early June, the exact dates vary depending on the region. The festival can be seen across Thailand but is best experienced in the north east region of Isaan when it traditionally takes place mid-May.
The world’s biggest water fight marks the beginning of a new year in Thailand. Songkran is is a time for adults and children alike to indulge in the Thai concept of sanuk – having fun. Oversized plastic water guns are often the weapon of choice.
Water is an important element in Thai culture. By having it thrown or poured on them, Thai people believe that their bad luck will be washed away for the new year so they can start the year fresh, clean and full of good luck. Even elders join in by having jasmine-scented water poured over their hands.
As well as dousing each other with water, one of the most important traditions of Songkran includes cleaning Buddha images. Locals will throw water as Buddha images are paraded through the streets.
Wan Lai is also an extraordinary festival, which takes place at the same time as Songkran in the province of Chonburi, between Bangkok and Pattaya.
Thai people take sand to their local temple, which is then formed into chedis (Buddhist stupas) that are decorated. This act of merit-making is to return the soil that one may have unwittingly removed from the grounds of the temple under their feet in the previous year. This tradition evolved into what is now Wan Lai.
Held annually between 16 and 20 April, the festival sees Bang Saen Beach transformed into a sand-sculpture gallery of stupendous craftsmanship. Most sculptures are in the form of chedis but there are other designs too, such as elephants, mermaids and tuk-tuks. Teams work on the elaborate designs for days to ensure they are ready in time for the judging that takes place on the final day. By that evening all the sculptures are knocked down and the beach cleared as a reminder of Buddha’s teaching “that nothing is permanent”.
Deep in the heart of the mountains in Northern Thailand lies “the city of three mists”. Mae Hong Son is the gorgeous capital of this region and it comes alive every April with one of Thailand’s most colourful festivals. The three-day Poy Sang Long festival (also written as Poi Sang Long) marks the ordination of Shan boys into monkhood. It’s a time of immense pride for their families.
The rituals begin in temple courtyards when boys have their hair shaved off to symbolise the renouncement of material goods. The following day the boys are adorned in make up including lipstick, eye shadow, rouge and a yellow powder called tanaka. They are dressed in their finest, most colourful clothes and carried on the shoulders of their relatives under a golden umbrella as they are paraded around town.
Each day starts with a morning prayer at their temple followed by a feast. On the last day, the boys swap their glamorous garments for the iconic saffron robes before shaving off their eyebrows to be welcomed into monkhood. They will then often stay at the temple for a few weeks before returning home to their families.
Ghost Festival is Thailand’s own rendition of Mexico’s Day of the Dead, and it takes place annually in June.
Legend has it that Prince Vessantara – the penultimate incarnation of Buddha – was gone for so long that people presumed he was dead. Upon his unexpected return, the locals were so overjoyed that their raucous celebrations woke the dead. Pi tam khon (the “ghosts that follow people”) began to wander the streets to join in the celebrations as a mark of respect to the prince.
These days, for three days the streets are filled with mask-wearing partygoers who try to “wake the dead” and welcome their spirits to join them in celebration. What started as simple masks made with sticky rice baskets and decorated with soot and turmeric has evolved into stunning designs that are meticulously painted. They are no longer throwaway items, with the best ones selling for thousands of bahts after the festival.
There is also an ulterior motive for the locals. Many of them carry around wooden phallic-shaped objects with the hope that they will tempt the gods into bringing rain. And if this fails, on the final day, as per Bung Ban Fai, bamboo rockets are launched into the sky to awaken the clouds.
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